A two-wheeled revelation in Israel - Middle East - Travel - The Independent

A two-wheeled revelation in Israel

From vibrant Tel Aviv to the Negev Desert, Israel's network of bike tracks is growing, says Mark Stratton

Gaza shimmered as a mirage in the winds of the Holy Land. I was overlooking the troubled Palestinian enclave from a ridge of withered eucalyptus that lent the north-western Negev Desert a fragile veneer of fertility. The mountain-bike trail had brought me to within a few kilometres of its border, from where I could see Gaza City sloping towards the Mediterranean.

Pedalling to the Israeli-Gaza border near Be'eri isn't as reckless or ill-planned as it sounds. It's easily reached by a popular and well-signed bike trail, which forms part of Israel's mushrooming cycle network of swashbuckling off-road adventures of the fat-tyre variety, combined with improving urban cycleways.

Within five years, it will be possible to cycle the entire length of Israel along a proposed 1,000km national bike trail; meanwhile, Vélib-inspired city bike-hire schemes are being rolled out in cities such as Tel Aviv.

It was in Israel's commercial and diplomatic capital that I began a six-day trip around the country's selected cycling hotspots. "The best way to see Tel Aviv is by bike, as you have access to all its highlights but you won't spend 40 per cent of your day stuck in traffic," said Chaim Rockman, who at 68 years old is Israel's longest-pedalling cycle guide.

Tel Aviv's sun-kissed Mediterranean promenade is a joy to cycle. Its coast-hugging cycleway merges brash party-loving Tel Aviv to the biblically ancient Jaffa Port; Tel Aviv was created as a suburb of Jaffa in 1909. We pedalled along Tel Aviv's seafront cycle lane, passing crowded city beaches fronted by hotels, outdoor seafood restaurants, gelaterias and nightclubs. Body-conscious Tel Avivians paraded ripped pecs and biceps and wholesome tans alongside us – they are seemingly able to jog, cycle, rollerblade and surf all day, then socialise all night.

By contrast, the atmosphere on reaching 9,500-year-old Jaffa, some 5km along the cycleway, was serene and respectful. Jaffa's honey-coloured citadel juts out onto a promontory defended by formidable Byzantine walls overtopped by church spires and minarets. We had to dismount to explore its narrow, twisty lanes, although in general, Israelis don't seem fussed if you cycle on the pavements.

Normally when cycling I'd expect to take a touring map. But instead Chaim led our exodus next morning into the arid wilderness of Judea with a bible in his pannier.

Mountain-biking around the pine and eucalyptus scrubland of the Judean foothills took us into the mythology-soaked Eretz ha Tanach (Land of the Bible). Chaim would periodically (and mercifully in 35C heat) stop under shady carob or olive trees and attach biblical meaning to the landscape surrounding us.

"The slope you just rode down was where the Philistines put forward their champion Goliath to face the Israelites," he told us, delivering one Lycra-clad sermon near Bet Guvrin-Maresha National Park … "and this dry gully is where David gathered the five flat pebbles to fell Goliath."

That afternoon, Chaim handed over guiding to his son, Amir, for several days of more adrenalin-fuelled biking in the Negev Desert. This region covers half of Israel, yet is home to only 10 per cent of the population.

After much brake-screeching and bouncing along the sandy, roughhouse track to the Gaza border, we transferred to Mitzpe Ramon. This small Negev town was a 1950s development town as Israel set about expanding Jewish settlements such as Eilat. The town has subsequently emerged as a centre for mountain biking because of its crow's-nest location on the edge of the Ramon crater: an enormous 500m-deep desert bowl hollowed out by millions of years of erosion.

It's also furnace-hot, so we biked off along the crater's craggy edge early to take in the sunrise, which appeared to enflame the bands of wavy, warped strata rippling the canyon's calamine-tinted walls. We returned with righteous hunger for our hotel's abundant breakfast buffet of soft cheeses, olives, humus, flat breads, plump peaches and shakshouka (eggs poached in tomatoes and onions).

Plenty of character-filled accommodation options welcome cyclists across the Negev. Outside Mitzpe Ramon, we stopped at desert winery Carmey Avdat. Located in a secluded gully near an ancient 3rd-century Nabatean fortress on a flat-topped mesa, its winemaker Eyal Izrael offers four rustically chic cabins with cobblestone floors and stone bathtubs amid the vineyard oasis. "Byzantine settlers produced wine in this very valley 1,500 years ago," he explained during an extensive tasting of fresh, light-bodied cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

Yet my biggest surprise awaited in Jerusalem. Previous visits had convinced me that its historic old city's narrow lanes of crowded souks choked by unwieldy parties of tourists couldn't be cycled. Amir's solution, however, was cunning. After dark, he guided us on a high-octane nocturnal cycle through Jerusalem's dimly lit old city. By then, it was empty. It felt somewhat akin to urban free-running – immensely irreverent and fun. I glimpsed golden glints of the Dome of the Rock shrine on several occasions as we hared around like BMX bandits.

Cycling also opened up New Jerusalem's spreadeagled suburbs, which were built during the 19th century as growing numbers of migrants spilt beyond the old city walls. Because of the heat and hills, I'd never explored these suburbs before. "Visitors always concentrate on old Jerusalem and miss out on these wonderful neighbourhoods," said Amir.

We cycled part of a new 40km cycleway that will encircle Jerusalem when completed, and explored the historical and architectural treasures of different neighbourhoods. These included the wealthy and formerly elite Arab district of Talbiya, where dwellings are enriched with 1920s and 1930s neo-classical and modernist ostentation featuring golden lion statues, ablak red-and-white brickwork and Armenian inlaid tiles.

It was yet another two-wheeled revelation in a land that changed with every pedal revolution.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with El Al (020-7121 1400; elal.co.uk) which flies from Luton and Heathrow to Tel Aviv from £361 per person. Alternatives are available on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Luton.

Cycling there

Gordon Active (00 972 3 765 9000; gordonactive.com) offers day-long cycling tours on a private basis from US$123pp (£82) or in a group from US$45pp (£30).

Staying there

The Carlton, Tel Aviv (00 972 3 520 1818; carlton.co.il). Doubles from US$300 (£200), room only.

Isrotel Ramon Inn, Mitzpe Ramon (00 972 8 638 7797; isrotel.co.uk). Doubles from US$170 (£113), including breakfast.

Dan Boutique, Jerusalem (00 972 3 7408966; danhotels.com). Doubles from US$228 (£152), including breakfast.

Carmey Avdat Winery (00 972 8 653 5177; carmeyavdat.com). Doubles from IS560 (£103), including breakfast.

Red tape and more information

The current Foreign Office (fco.gov.uk) advice warns against all travel to the Sheba'a Farms and Ghajjar area along the border with Lebanon, as well as to Gaza where air strikes and rocket attacks are a risk, and encourages extra vigilance when travelling anywhere in the West Bank, particularly in the cities of Jenin, Nablus and Hebron. It also warns of protests in and around the Old City in Jerusalem, especially after Friday prayers.

Israel Tourism: thinkisrael.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
Life and Style
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
Kenny G
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week